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PM again calls for unity government; Liberman vows support, Blue and White wary

Netanyahu asks Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu, Labor-Gesher-Meretz to join his Likud party in a coalition

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, right. (Flash90)
Composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, right. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday called for most opposition parties to join with his Likud party and form a national unity government to deal with the coronavirus.

“I call on my colleagues Benny Gantz, Avigdor Liberman and Amir Peretz to join a national unity government,” Netanyahu said during a televised press conference on the latest steps the government was taking to battle the spread of the infection.

He notably made no mention of the predominantly Arab Joint List, which he has delegitimized and dismissed as a party of “terror supporters.”

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has said he was willing to discuss an emergency government, but implied it would need to include the Joint List which won the third largest number of seats in recent elections.

Sources in the Blue and White party told Haaretz late Saturday that they are not ruling out joining a government led by Netanyahu, provided it works on an equal basis. “We’re prepared to join an emergency government on the condition it is comprised equally of the right-wing and center-left blocs, or only leans on Likud and Blue and White,” they said. “We’ll agree to sit in an emergency government under Netanyahu that has a short expiration date — or a government that serves for four years and includes a rotation [of prime ministers],” they added.

Gantz has opposed joining a government led by Netanyahu during Israel’s prolonged political deadlock due to the premier’s legal woes, a stance the Blue and White reiterated after elections earlier this month.

Gantz on Friday criticized Netanyahu for addressing him via the media rather than in private. He said the formation of an emergency unity government to deal with the burgeoning coronavirus crisis “is the right thing for the State of Israel at this time,” but that he was waiting for a response from Netanyahu on beginning negotiations.

Earlier Saturday, Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman issued the same call for unity, saying his party would support a unity coalition to deal with the pandemic, even if they weren’t part of it.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman attends a conference at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, on February 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“In light of the situation and order to ease the decision-making process, we call for the formation of a unity government that will only be comprised of Likud and Blue and White,” Liberman wrote on Twitter.

He said the government “will only deal with the coronavirus crisis. Our support for the government will be guaranteed even if we aren’t part of it.”

On Thursday evening, Netanyahu first publicly reached out to his political rivals to form an emergency government to fight the spread of the virus, inviting Gantz for talks. In a prime-time televised speech from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, the premier called on the Blue and White leader to take the step following a year-long political deadlock during which neither has succeeded in forming a governing coalition.

“It would be an emergency government for a limited time, and we will fight together to save the lives of tens of thousands of citizens,” Netanyahu said in his statement to the press, during which he issued dire warnings of a high potential death toll from the virus.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at his Jerusalem office on March 14, 2020 (GALI TIBBON / POOL / AFP)

In a Facebook post on Friday afternoon, Gantz said that Blue and White “intends to join the fight against the coronavirus, just as we have always enlisted for the State of Israel. Since the outbreak of the crisis, we have given full backing to the government’s actions and so we will continue to do so, whatever the political circumstances.”

But turning to the possibility of a unity government, Gantz said he had not received a serious response to his request to begin formal negotiations.

“In a conversation I had with him after [his address], I told him that we would continue to back every move [aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus in Israel] and I suggested that our negotiating teams meet and discuss the need and possibility of establishing a broad emergency government for the forthcoming period,” Gantz said.

“So far I have not received a serious reply from him. I am still waiting — because an emergency government is the right thing for the State of Israel at this time,” he said.

Sources close to Gantz told the Ynet news site that the issue of a unity government was not progressing as Blue and White was demanding a meeting of negotiating teams before any one-on-one between the leaders to see what Netanyahu was offering, while Likud said it wanted an immediate meeting between the two party chiefs.

In another possible reference to including the Joint List in the emergency unity government, Gantz also wrote Friday that “A government [Netanyahu] defined as one that fights the virus that does not distinguish between right and left, between religious and secular, and between Jews and Arabs.”

Netanyahu reportedly told Gantz in their Thursday conversation that “terror supporters cannot be part of the government — not in regular times or in an emergency,” using a term often employed by his party to tar the Joint List or elements within the alliance.

Gantz, since elections last week, has been working to put together a minority government made up of Blue and White (33 seats), the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu (7 seats) and dovish Labor-Gesher-Meretz (7 seats), with most or all of the Arab lawmakers of the Joint List (15 seats) giving their support from outside the coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As neither Likud nor Blue and White mustered a majority of Knesset seats in the March 2 election, neither has a clear path to a majority coalition, even with the prime minister having the backing of 58 MKs and Likud being the largest party in the 120-seat Knesset.

Previously, Gantz had refused to sit in a government with Netanyahu due to the corruption charges facing the prime minister. Netanyahu has repeatedly attacked Gantz as willing to sit with “terror supporters” in a bid to unseat him.

Netanyahu, in November, became Israel’s first sitting prime minister with charges against him, when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he would indict him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust — though the charges were only filed officially in January, when the prime minister dropped his bid for Knesset immunity. Netanyahu denies the charges and claims he is the victim of an attempted “political coup” involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecutors.

His trial is set to begin on March 17.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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